MN Orchestra Never Ceases to Surprise

On March 3, 2017, we were supposed to attend the Inside the Classics: Bartók’s Farewell because we fell in love with Inside the Classics when we attended one last year: Hipster vs Nerd. However, I was deathly ill the entire weekend of March 3, and we were unable to leave the apartment. The MN Orchestra is awesome because they let you trade in your tickets for another performance later in the season. When it comes to needing to change tickets, I find this policy to be the most flexible in the Twin Cities. Heck, movie theaters won’t even let you do that these days.

For our rescheduled trip to the orchestra, I chose for us to go to Symphony in 60: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Full disclosure, I have no “real” knowledge of classical music, so I thought the Rite of Spring was Evard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1 For those who know classical music by sight, my confusion of the two is idiotic.

So, I anticipated a beautiful night of serene music to usher in spring and all of its wondrous symbols of rebirth, delicate but hardy flowers who brave their blooms through the snow, sweet buds cracking through the trees and the sound of the returning migrating birds.

But it wasn’t only the music that drew us to this particular concert, it was hosted by Sam Bergman, one of the duo from Inside the Classics, along with a performance from THE Osmo Vänskä, as conductor.  I believe we have not seen him conduct since New Year’s Eve of 2015, so I was excited and curious to see the duo of Vänskä and Bergman interact with each other on stage.

With the exchange of seats, you sometimes receive different seats for the new program. Joel told me a couple of times that we would be sitting in the front row, but I never believed that. I kept myself in denial of what that would really look like for as long as possible. I assumed, we’d still be able to see the entire orchestra because what I love about the orchestra is watching all the instruments interact with each other from afar. From further back, the orchestra appears as a unified, well oiled art making machine.

But, as Joel handed the ticket to the usher, who walked 10 rows with us and just pointed, I had this sinking feeling. We just kept going forward, more and more and more. Until…THE FRONT ROW! We were so close, we could make eye contact with the musicians. EYE CONTACT. Eye contact with Susie Park, First Violin, Roger Frish, First Violin, Peter McGuire, Second Violin, Magan Tam, viola ( I can even tell you about the beautiful bracelet she was wearing) and Pitnarry Shin, cello as they were warming up. Then, eye contact with Sam Bergman, Erin Keefe, Concertmaster, and Osmo Vänskä. It all just blew my mind.

This is entirely too close to my orchestra. But why? At the end of the concert, they have a time when you can go on stage and mingle with the musicians. Why was I freaking out? The only analogy I have is a baseball one. (As a side note for the past two weeks, I’ve been counting down to my Christmas Day: Opening Day of Baseball. I have my own devised baseball rituals I’ve developed every year for such the occasion. But, I’m not going to go into the details of that now.)

When watching baseball on TV or listening to it on the radio, the players are larger than life. They are strong, indestructible heroes. But when you see the game live, baseball players become human, mortal. They’re still heroes, of course, but their humanity and possibility of injury is undeniable. And, you get to see how they really love to play baseball with each other.

This is what happened at the orchestra. The MN Orchestra, from afar are indestructible heroes, unfaltering art creators, and the very few, who spend their lives with their art and make it to the “majors.” But like baseball players, their humanity is undeniable when seen up close. A wince by a musician while touching her shoulder, the purple streaks in the first violist’s hair, the way each touches their instrument as personifications of old friends are apparent and delightfully mortal. I’ve never thought about how the musicians love to play. Their micro-expressions while they play of sheer delight are undisguised. When the performance was over, and Joel and I stood clapping our hearts out, the eye contact between the musicians and the audience AND US showed their pure joy of sharing and playing the music, the art, together.

Now, Symphony in 60: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was in no way ANYTHING like Peer Gynt Suite No.1. One of the benefits of concerts like these, where Sam Bergman and others explain the history, composition and both show and tell you what to listen for in the Symphony, is that you become aware, especially in a Symphony like this, how talented the orchestra is.

It turns out, that the Rite of Spring is actually a ballet where druids perform their Spring ritual where they believe they must sacrifice a woman in order for the lakes and rivers to break open and begin to run again.  And how do they sacrifice this woman? Of course, she must dance herself to death! Bergman mentions how at points during the Symphony that no one is really playing anything at the same time as the others. The sections he uses as examples through his explanation are so cacophonous that it physically hurt to be in the front row.

But then, like magic, the orchestra begins its interpretation of the Rite of SpringWith each section, the music built and grew in complexity and cacophony. Sitting in the front row brought us another new experience: physically feeling the music. Not only could we hear the music, but the vibrations through the floor and being so close to the music made us breathless. The silences and bassoon solo during this piece were mesmerizing. Watching several strings break on bows of the string players, as the Symphony continued, was thrilling.

Joel here to add some more on the music. As soon as they started talking about this piece, I knew we were in for a night. I remember first hearing about it years ago on Radiolab where they did a long section on this particular piece and its reception in May 1913 in Paris (the link has the whole episode, but for this piece, jump to 32 minutes in. They mention riots, however, using that word to describe it is debatable.). Sam Bergman’s narration of the piece brought back all these memories about what can be considered one of the most influential pieces of music in the 20th century. Yeah, it’s that big now, but at the time, holy moly. 

Stravinsky jumped ahead with this composition by experimenting with clashes of chords, rapidly changing metre, dissonance and just overall eerie effects. Bergman said in 1913, even with experienced dancers in the wings trying to yell out the beats to the dancers on stage, staying on the beat became impossibly difficult, especially once the audience started getting rowdy. Unlike most ballets, the dancers also were constantly moving down rather than up throughout. 

The orchestra at the time had few rehearsals and the score kept changing. 

The New York Times headline for this event? “Parisians Hiss New Ballet.” Not just hissing though, there were reportedly fights in the audience. Fights! Whether it was the music or dancing is up for debate, but once the audience started fighting over whether or not this was an outrage or genius. Several dozen audience members were booted out and the ballet continued. 

The experience of hearing various factions of the orchestra practically fighting for control of the music is hard to capture in words. Best just to go take a listen. Watching Osmo Vänskä work up a sweat keeping all the sections together thought they sound at odds so often was a delight. 

More than 100 years later, listening to this piece that caused so much debate at the time, I hear the godfather of movie scores. The driving pulse of the strings in Hitchcock films. The abstraction of Kubrick’s film scores. Many psychological thrillers have something to owe to this music. 

I reveled in the extreme dynamics of this performance from our unique vantage point in the front row – soaking in every note as they fought for dominance before being soothed by the bassoon for a few measures between onslaughts. It was truly beautiful and endlessly impressive for all technical mastery that these fantastic musicians showed throughout the piece. 

They say drug addicts are always chasing that first high with each new fix, but they are never quite able to reach it. My first experience with the orchestra several years ago was incredible, and we’ve enjoyed the hell out of every performance we’ve been to since, but this time, this time I really felt that first high again. I felt at one with the last century of music through a performance that took me on a journey through my favorite films and experiences. It was a trip, man. Now, back to Becky! 

And, like I said before, when the performance was over, Joel and I stood clapping our hearts out, eye contact galore, it was the best night we have spent at the orchestra. And, the performance did bring the beauty of spring that I craved.

The Minnesota Orchestra never ceases to surprise me.

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